- Associated Press - Saturday, January 27, 2018

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Ricky Taylor’s debut with Team Penske could not have had a bumpier start.

Taylor was in practical quarantine leading into the Rolex 24 at Daytona because he came down with the flu when he arrived at the track. He was given Tamiflu and told to stay away from his new Penske teammates.

When it came time to race, though, nothing was going to hold back Taylor. He was part of the Wayne Taylor Racing team last year that won both the Rolex and the IMSA championship, but he left his father and brother after the season to drive for Roger Penske’s organization.

Taylor did his planned 2-hour stint Saturday to see how he felt, then told teammates Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal the driver rotation would go on as planned for the twice-round-the-clock endurance race.

“I always knew I would do my two hours, knowing how sick I was, I knew I’d find a way to do my two hours,” Taylor said. “I don’t want to just do the minimum, though. I want to contribute because to do it with 2 1/2 guys is tough and takes you out of the chances to win. This is the first day I felt like myself and I’m happy with where I am and happy I can contribute to the team.”

Yet his first laps under race conditions didn’t start as planned. He took over from Castroneves and the door on the Acura DPi would not close.

Taylor tried to close it as he navigated his first trip around Daytona International Speedway, but the latch was broken and the door would not stick.

“Hopped in and first thing is, the door won’t close,” Taylor said. “I kept pulling on it, but it didn’t seem to want to latch. Something must have been bent or stuck, but they had to fix it.”

Taylor fell a lap down because of the pit stop to fix the door, but gained it back before turning the car over to Rahal.

By the time Castroneves got the car back for his second cycle in the rotation, he drove the Acura to the front of the field as the race closed in on the six-hour mark. He was far more relaxed than he was at the start, when he was trying to hold off the Cadillacs

“The boys in the Cadillacs behind me, they really pushed,” said Castroneves. “We were fighting and I was pushing hard, and then I realized, ‘It’s a 24-hour race.’”

Penske this year is making his return to full-time sports car racing in a two-car Acura effort and the expectations for the program are tremendous. The team owner said he’d be on the pit stand for the entire race, save for any breaks to change his clothes as the temperatures dipped.

The first few hours of the Rolex went as expected with the Cadillacs out front.

Dutch driver Renger van der Zande, Ricky Taylor’s replacement at Wayne Taylor Racing, led the field to green in a Cadillac. His competition came from Action Express Racing, which took control of the race. The Nissan from Tequila Patron was in the mix, sandwiched between Cadillacs from Action Express and Wayne Taylor Racing.

“It’s a nice car to drive,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who returned to prototype competition this year with the Taylor team after driving an Acura in the GT Daytona class last season.

The strength of the Cadillacs made it an uphill battle for two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and United Autosports.

Alonso is in the race because he’s got it on his bucket list of prestigious races he wants to run, and the Rolex was easy because the Ligier LMP2 is owned by his McLaren F1 boss Zak Brown. The team has known it doesn’t have the speed to win the race, but it is expected to rain on Sunday and that’s where Alonso can close the gap.

“We’ll see if we can keep the lead lap as long as possible,” Alonso said. “It will be hard for us to overtake any of the prototypes, they seem to have too much power compared to us. That will be a shame if we are at the end of the race fighting. To compensate, we will try to have a clear and clean race and traffic management. We have experience with wet conditions, so if that happens later in the race, it will be a big challenge for us and we are ready to maybe maximize the challenge.”

Alonso’s car used strategy to get to the front of the field a few times while McLaren reserve driver Lando Norris was driving.

In the GT Le Mans, the two Ford entries from Chip Ganassi Racing had lapped the field about seven hours into the race. Ganassi has six overall victories in the Rolex and one class win last year. The team owner was the grand marshal for the race.


More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org

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